Muslim women need protection beyond sharia law

The Muslim Marriages Bill has brought to light the potentially embarrassing problem of the many Muslims who live their lives, and their marriages, according to shariah law when it suits them, but throw those rules away when it’s less convenient for their pockets and desires.

It has also shown up the gap between Muslims living in the ivory towers of financial and familial happiness and those from poorer backgrounds, whose daughters often don’t get to go to university—and in some cases to finish school—or to be independent.

If the Bill is passed, it will enable the state to enforce the provisions of shariah law for those Muslims married under its provisions.
Those opposing the Bill are either unaware of the problems faced by many Muslim women in a country that doesn’t recognise their marriages, or are holding on to a religious system of laws without realising that even though the system is thorough, it works only if it is thoroughly followed.

Organisations such as the Muslim Women’s Association, a body with a presumptuously representative name, are opposing the Bill because they feel that it would make the Constitution, and not the Qur’an, supreme. What they seem to be forgetting is that the laws of the Qur’an can be enforced only if there is a body to ensure that these laws are followed. But Muslim judicial bodies have no power of enforcement and they rarely champion the cause of Muslim women.

One Muslim woman told the Mail & Guardian (“Marrying rights with tradition”, May 22) how when she went to the Jamiat ul Ulama (the regional judicial council) in Pietermaritzburg to complain about her physically and emotionally abusive husband, she was told to “go back to him and make sabr [be patient]”.

Had the council stood up for her rights, she would not be in the situation she is now. Soon after her complaint, her husband threw her out of the house with only the clothes on her back, but refused to give her a divorce.

And had a court been able to enforce shariah law, she would be able to get divorced and receive the maintenance owed to her. At present she has no husband for all intents and purposes, but cannot remarry.

As a result of the unIslamic practices of some Muslims who believe that women should not be educated, there are Muslim girls in South Africa who are taken out of school at 13 and married by 16. These girls have no financial or educational independence. If their husbands cheat on them or leave them—a regular occurrence in marriages into which girls are not forced but rather nudged by sexism-induced guilt—there is no way for these women to receive any support or maintenance. And without ample education, they cannot be self-reliant: some end up begging or in shelters.

These women are often unaware that they could get married in court for their rights to be recognised by the state. And even women who are educated are sometimes told that a civil marriage is socially disapproved of. Although Islam has no room for sexism, patriarchal authorities have, over many decades, created a system where women are not only treated as inferior, but have been made to believe that their inferiority is necessary to be an obedient Muslim.

Polygamy poses an interesting example of why shariah law must be enforceable. Polygamy is allowed in Islam only if a man can afford all his wives and can make all of them feel equally loved. A man planning on marrying multiple times is obviously confident that he has enough love to give all the world, but if a court were to give his wife a chance to voice her feelings legally, it could find differently.

The sad reality is that while Muslims’ marriage ceremonies are conducted according to shariah law, the rest of their marriages are not always practised accordingly. Muslim women deserve a powerful institution as strong, fair and respected as the one that takes care of all other South Africans: the Constitution.

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